Political Science

The field of Political Science is comprised of several sub-disciplines. The two main branches, however, are government and international relations. That is the branch that studies the internal operations of a nation states, and the branch that studies their interactions across boundaries. They are related because they both study power, it’s use and attainment. In government you study the structures that facilitate or limit people’s behavior, and how people actually behave within those structures. In International Relations, you study the ways that countries interact with one another. People have often said colloquially that Politics is about “getting what you want” and there is some truth to it. Political Science is the study of how people and nations “get what they want”, and how various structures and policies facilitate or limit that. Political Science then, is ultimately based on what viewpoint you have of humanity.  Keep in mind this is a blog, not an academic journal. The terms and categories are my not all standard to the field.

Some political models do not adequately account for the way people really behave. They mistakenly treat people as if they were naturally “good actors.” The famous negotiation book “Getting to Yes” by the Harvard Negotiation Project seems to have a little of this flavor. It takes the perspective that really all we need to come to an agreement is to understand one another better. If we really understood one another better, all negotiations could be resolved. Usually people on the other side of the table have legitimate needs that we just have to accommodate and everything will work out fine. Give a little on each side. In some cases, this is in fact true. There are many “good actors” out there, who if we could understand each other and account for each others grievances, we could resolve issues. The problem is that not all people our organizations are good actors. This is hard for people who are good actors to see, because people tend to assume that the person on the other side of the table thinks like they do. People who are out to take advantage of others, think that is how everyone else thinks. They will interpret all of your actions as ways you are trying to take advantage of them. People who are trying to be beneficent tend to think that others are too. When some predatory person or entity comes along and pretends to be beneficent and offer “tit for tat” they believe it, and then they are conned. Instead of being the resolution, any thing a good actor gives to a bad actor becomes the new starting place for negotiation, because the goal of the bad actor is to take everything you have.

This is a recognized important first principle of Political Science — that actors are “rational.” This means that they each pursue their own self-interest. This is often modeled using game theory such as the “prisoner’s dilemma.” This is the classic problem of two suspects being arrested by the police, and the police try to get them to rat on one another. Since they are separated neither one knows who is going to rat out whom. If neither one talks they both get away. If they both talk they both go to jail.  If one talks and not the other, then one person gets away, and the other one goes to jail. This gets enhanced by having multiple “rounds” of interaction over time. This is usually modeled by a game called “tit for tat.” The key dynamic that emerges is this:  if you both collaborate, then over time you will do better than trying to take advantage of someone else. Taking advantage of someone may produce a short term gain, but they will ultimately retaliate, and you’ll both lose. Now there is a lot to be said for game theory, but it is hard to get one that models real political interactions well.

What does this have to do with a Christian view? A Christian view recognizes that some people are out to “steal, kill and destroy.” They are not interested in collaboration. They are interested in domination. If they can convince you that they want collaboration, they can get you to actually give them some things they would otherwise have to fight for. The classic case is of course Hitler’s expansion of Germany. He had every intention of conquering Europe, but why fight for something that they were willing to give to him? He managed to build a super-Germany pretty easily this way. But how are bad actors able to get good actors to give them things? Often they actually feel guilty about their own past actions , and feel that the person on the other side of the table really deserves what they are asking for, to make up for that bad past. The bad actor never feels guilty. Only the one trying to do the right thing does.  Instead of seing the issue through a “rational” lens, they are seeing it through an “idealistic” lens. Therefore, this is what I’m calling “idealistic political theory.” It’s not a real theory, but it very clearly describes the thoughts and behaviors of some political actors from the civilized world in dealing with tyrants, despots, and other bad actors. Idealistic politics believes that we truly can “all just get along.” A Christian view, however recognizes that the devil is always seeking to foment strife, and take advantage of the good. A Christian view then agrees with early political thinker Edmund Burke  who stated this when he said “all that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”

Idealistic politics is a particular feature of democratically elected leaders, but not all leaders of democracies practice it. Some practice what is called realpolitik. This view is often associated with Machiavelli and in modern times Henry Kissinger. Realpolitik does solve the problem of idealistic politics because it assumes that others are trying to gain power and tries to do the same. Realpolitik is practical rather than idealistic. Realpolitik can open up ethical problems, however. Those who have an idealistic view look at this approach as being base and unethical, and it is often summarized by the phrase “the ends justify the means.” This is a caricature. Modern practitioners of realpolitik are not purely amoral, they just do not define all of their policies by an overall moral vision. A more accurate portrayal would be something like- all means should be used to gain and  retain power as long as they are not blatantly immoral. This obviously raises dicey issues from a Christian perspective. In international relations this often means collaborating with countries that would otherwise be enemies in order to fight an even greater enemy.

Some Christians see the “turn the other cheek” Scripture as a Biblical instruction to let bad actors have what they want. Be nice to them, and they will be nice back. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for disaster both in abusive relationships and with bad political actors. You do not tell a woman who is being beaten by her husband to keep “turning the other cheek.”  You tell her to leave or get a court order. Turning the other cheek is really the policy of not practicing revenge. You don’t hate the man who abused you, or try to abuse him back, you just refuse to keep letting him abuse you. This is part of what Jesus means when he says “resist the evil one and he will flee from you.”

A Christian view then is both idealogical and realistic. It is realistic in its recognition that there are bad actors in the world, and that you cannot simply roll over when they make demands. It is idealogical, however in that it recognizes that there are morally “good” and morally “bad” actors. It seeks to advance the morally good, while resisting the morally bad.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>